Maritain expresses some suspicion about the term “fine arts”. It is hard to say what the fine arts are all about except to say that they make beautiful things, and yet Maritain maintains that beauty is not the end of the fine arts. It is the “end beyond the end,” he says—and in the same passage, he admits that he struggles to find words for what he has in mind.
This past year, I thought a lot about what he meant and how he should have said it, because I was asked to teach a course that covers the history of art from ancient Greece to the Gothic cathedral. The course presented a puzzle in its construction: during the entire period it covers, there was no word or category for “art” in the sense that defines the course, meaning more or less “the kinds of things that go in collections and museums”. Throughout antiquity and the Middle Ages, “artists” were simply artisans, and “art” was the ability to make things of all kinds, including both paintings and plows. Today we distinguish the useful arts from the fine arts. How should we approach a course on fine arts that covers only those times in which no such distinction was made? How do the useful arts and the fine arts in fact relate to one another?Continue reading “Is “fine arts” a useful term?”